When I read last March that Barbara Theodosiou’s son, Daniel, had succumbed to his 10-year struggle with mental illness and substance use disorder, tears started streaming and would not stop. The news came on “The Addict’s Mom,” a closed Facebook group Theodosiou started in 2010 after discovering that Daniel and another son were using.
At first, the Fort Lauderdale-based public relations professional says, she was unable to function.“My life fell apart. I felt isolation,” she recalls. She was physically ill and neglected other family members. But as time went on, Theodosiou came up with the idea of creating “a safe place where moms could share without shame their triumphs and tragedies.”
I first met Theodosiou in 2011 when I edited a blog she wrote for a recovery website. At the time, there were about 2,000 members of “TAM,” as it’s called. Today, there are 21,000 members in the closed group and more than 70,000 across a public page, a Web site and offshoot subgroups such as ones for grieving moms and another for grandparents. TAM also has a presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Google+. There are physical chapters in every state, and it has become a well-known advocate for heightening awareness and reducing stigma for those afflicted with substance use disorder.
“The system is broken,” as a story about Daniel’s decade-long travails in the education, legal, correction and rehabilitation bureaucracies puts it. One of the most recent TAM members is a government official who has clearly gotten that message: Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Earlier this month, he invited questions from other TAM members — more than 1,400 were submitted — and then conducted a live webinar on its Facebook page.
From the beginning, Theodosiou has been adamant about maintaining an overall sense of respect and civility among users — all too rare in online social media in general, but particularly in areas like this where opinions vary and emotions run so high.
TAM’s explosive growth is not only a perverse reflection of the growing public health crisis of how we deal with mental illness and substance misuse, but also a testament to the power of social media to educate, mobilize — and, all too often, express solidarity or sorrow.
A post about a child who had fatally overdosed soon after getting out of a rehab hit my newsfeed a few weeks ago. Reactions streamed in batches — nearly 200 in the first 60 minutes — made all the more gripping because they came from parents fearing, or having been through, a similar tragedy.
To be sure, there are hopeful, upbeat posts on TAM, too. Someone’s child has been clean for 30 days, or graduated from high school or grad school. Or just said, “I love you” for the first time in years.
Shortly after reading about the child who ODed — which is all too common among users who have detoxed because their bodies cannot tolerate the dosage they had been taking — I ran into a woman who told me about her nephew, whom I knew was serving time for violating probation for heroin use. He was being released that week, she told me. Of course, the hope was that he would stay clean. The reality is that often doesn’t happen. I suggested that she not only tell her sister about TAM, but also warn her son that if he does choose to use, he be mindful of his reduced tolerance.
She thanked me for the information, saying it was “truly bashert” — the Yiddish word for destiny — that we’d crossed paths. What was bashert was that I’d just seen the Facebook post.
TAM came to mind when I heard a PRI radio report last month about how important WhatsApp has been in connecting a group of mothers in Brazil with babies who have microcephaly. The app has also been widely used by doctors in Brazil who were investigating the probable connection of microcephaly to the outbreak of the Zita virus.
For all the frivolity, banality, time-suck and political nonsense social media have brought into our lives, they connect like-minded people in ways that greatly amplify notions of family and tribes going back many millennia. And the information gathered and shared in some of these discussions truly can be a lifeline in the “real” world.